Duleek Ranatunga is the co-founder and CEO of PearBio : a health-tech company which recreates the tumour microenvironment to explore cancer advancement and drug therapies from individual patient samples using an organ-on-a-chip approach. This week, he joined the podcast to discuss how he set up his business and the challenges of developing a product in the biotech space.

Starting off his career in a fast-growing start-up in the fintech space, Duleek was inspired to start his own company, PearBio. Having a background in the tech world, Duleek discusses, greatly helped to bring his own company off the ground. The short timescale system and fast-paced iteration cycles encouraged him to quickly advance product development and abandon software when it wasn’t working. Duleek stresses the importance of speed in minimum viable product creation, and the urgency needed to create a product which is both diagnostically commercially viable and also is fulfilling an unmet need in the market. For academics in biotech, the focus is often on the research behind the product, yet building the tech and understanding the market is just as valuable. With PearBio, the software was developed long before the science behind the product was proven – and whilst this wasn’t intentional, it aided R&D of the technology, which often requires many iterative cycles. After this, the science could be followed and tech brought in for further testing. 

A background involving both tech and healthcare aided company innovation as well as bolstering Duleek’s connections in the space. His co-founder also had a different set of skills, and he notes the importance of a partner when developing the business and working a full-time job. Co-founders help with the sharing of work-load and finding someone with complementary expertise allows for more focused tasks (for example, one can be more customer facing, whilst the other develops the product). 

Funding is vital for a biotech company and the importance of lab space and conducting research results in a highly capital-intensive environment. Whilst raising capital for PearBio, Duleek went through multiple rounds of funding. His advice: aim to get grants, if you can – it’s a fewer strings attached approach – but if this is unsuccessful, don’t be afraid to approach others and get yourself out there. Network and collaborate as much as you can, and even though it can be difficult at first, he remembers his own experience of cold calling pharma companies – a low success rate, but surprisingly effective tactic! PearBio first approached pharma pilot schemes and whilst this was difficult to gain, meant the company had leverage and backing when approaching investors further down the line. He also recommends attending accelerator programmes (like the CTA!) which are particularly useful for academics who may not know the investment world, as companies can receive funding, and be introduced to investors, whilst learning and developing their prototypes prior to investment readiness.

Duleek pushes for development of ideas: if something is yet to be solved, there is still a market. While pharma can be a daunting competitor, an unmet need will have multiple avenues for product implementation. He suggests building a pipeline around those who have previously tried and failed – doing so will increase likelihood of success. He especially encourages academics to focus on building a product: focus on the market need and find what is commercially viable before implementing research. Develop a minimum viable product which fits the market and has clinical and economic long-term and short-term validity and build a scalable pipeline for this as early as possible. Finally, remember you are not curing cancer, you are solving a problem in the field, and therefore catering to your customers is essential.